Distance Learning #3 – On Distance Learning and Pornography, pt. 1

Posted on Dec 2, 2009

The comments below are essentially a re-post from a Blackboard discussion that had taken place in one of my classes. I am reproducing it here.

PLEASE NOTE: The following comments may be considered offensive by some. I assure you that I am not trying to be provocative with the intent of irritating or offending anyone personally. Please consider, for the moment, that the comparative study of pornography and distance learning can be conducted with legitimate academic discussion, in spite of the potentially exploitative, abusive and sometimes illegal nature of pornography. This is a phenomenological comparison, not a moral one.

I have been asked in another discussion group to respond with my opinions about Distance Learning. I don’t have much to go by since I have only taken one DL class. I am also biased from being 45 years old and already indoctrinated into learning habits. From the several weeks of my experience with the DL class so far, however, I have some toughts.

I find distance learning lacks the intimacy and mystique that is essential to inspiration. It provides an efficient mechanism for the movement of molecules, but lacks a heartbeat. (Just read an article in WIRED about a Twitter corporate memo describing a 1 billion user threshold as “sensing a true pulse on the world“.)

Try to imagine that there were multi-million dollar institutions whose mission it was to persuade people that the newest, most innovative way to have sex was to login online at certain intervals and watch a pre-recorded movie, take some notes, explore some links, and upload your response. It’s preposterous! Are “distance sex” and “distance learning” analogous enough to even speak in the same terms? I cannot speak for everyone on that, but here are some thoughts.

I believe that there are terms that exist between participants in both realms that encourage richer engagement, or cause disengagement. There is, plausibly, learning and sex that could be formal, casual, purposeful, incidental, boring, inspiring, creative, innovative, conventional, etc. Both situations are goal oriented, interactive, oriented in fluid roles/reversals, reflective, and remediative (hopefully). There is a sense of what to do in any given situation, but not always a sense of how. The course of the activity can take on a life of its own – you may be leading the activity forward, or it can drag you along and all you can think about is where else you’d rather be. This intimate tension is both nerve-wracking and essential to its mystique.

I suppose one’s residual sense of having just had “bad sex” is more apparent than “bad learning”. When it’s good, you pretty much know it. When it isn’t, however, there are often doubts as to whether the cause is one’s own, one’s partner or the environment. There are also antecedent variables, such as style and preferences, although I cannot say whether society encourages a conscious approach in one realm rather than another. I have never, for example, walked in on the first day of a class and announced how I prefer to be taught with an expectation that it will be offered! On the other hand…

In distance learning, I feel as though the best I can get out of it is the equivalent of phone sex, or maybe webcam sex. It will serve its purpose, but it’s not the real thing, and never will be, so long as the word “distance” is in its name. Actually, to me, the phrase itself, “distance learning,” is a bit of an oxymoron.

Perhaps if researchers explored how the most successful webcam sex entrepreneurs have crowdsourced their techniques to something that works, we might have some ideas for improving distance learning. I believe the pornography industry is far more fluid in its willingness to experiment with adopting and adapting new technology into the scheme of providing their prescribed service. I don’t think they pay much attention to ISTE, or read the Horizon Report. Their decisions, I think, are informed more by analytics, or more immediately by other “measurements” (sorry).

There’s something to be said for that, and it intrigues me to imagine that someone might someday login to a distance learning interface and be given a wide variety of choices for how one would prefer to learn any given topic. Or even an interface that would allow the user to build an empirical learning model of their own, then the “system” builds it for you out of components i.e, two live experts, aggregated web resources, text recommendations, demonstration videos, communities of other students studying the same thing, some crowdsourced-rated materials lists, chat resources, a list of “other things students used who used this resource too”, and so on. And even a Submit for Peer Review option. Certification might be tough, but it could be fun to do.

In other words, instructional designers should spend some time taking one class and developing it 5 different ways for online consumption – horizontal development rather than vertical. Oh, that’s a bad pun there. Sorry, again.

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